Currently playing on VOD, SundanceNOW.com and premiering in limited theaters (NY and LA) starting September 9th, John Landis’ dark comedy Burke & Hare tells the story of the titular real-life serial murderers that terrorized Edinburgh, Scotland in the early 1800s.
BD got on the phone with Landis recently to discuss the film, which marks his first feature directorial effort (at least in the narrative realm) since the 1998 crime comedy Susan’s Plan.
See inside for the full interview.
After a few minutes on the phone with director John Landis, I quickly realized you don’t so much interview him as have a conversation with him. It was a refreshing change, particularly in a racket that normally requires one to simply sit and be a less-wealthy sounding board for the “talent” on hand. Except Landis is different. “Do you know about…?” he would ask me. “Have you ever ever seen…?”
Wait a minute. What? You mean John Landis is interested in what I have to say? Whether or not I’m engaged in the conversation? Wow, I guess I really am a human being, with feelings and opinions. I’d forgotten there for a minute.
But seriously though – I liked him. He was good to me during our brief 15 minutes together. John Landis. The man who, if he’d never directed another movie after An American Werewolf in London, would still be considered one of the premier directors of his generation. He is clearly knowledgeable, and articulate, and intelligent, and has a good sense of history. We talked about the way things were, and are, and about where we’re headed.
Oh, yeah – we also discussed a little movie called Burke & Hare, his first feature narrative theatrical film (an important distinction; see below) since 1998. You may call it a comeback – or at least an attempt at one. I would, anyway. As a matter of fact, I did – but he doesn’t like that word. So let’s just call it a new beginning.
Bloody-Disgusting: You haven’t directed a narrative feature for about 12 or 13 years -
John Landis: You know, each journalist I talk to it gets longer. [Laughs] It was at about nine years this morning and now 12 or 13. It’s actually ten years, but that’s okay. What you mean is [a] theatrical feature, I think.
BD: Well, obviously you’ve been doing other things. You did a couple of documentaries. But why the long break for narrative feature filmmaking?
JL: Well, for a number of reasons. Not least of which is the movies that I wanna make and the movies they want me to make are not necessarily the same. [Laughs] So you know, until someone gives me a job on something I’d like to do, you know…movies cost a lot of money. I mean, Francis Coppola, his last three films, he’s paid for himself. You know, the studios are not in the business of indulging directors. So that’s what going on.
BD: Well, that seems different from when you first started out, right?
JL: Well, that’s an exaggeration. Studios have never indulged directors. But what is quite correct, what you are right about, is Hollywood in the ’70s, and ’80s, and even into the ’90s, was a much different place than it is now. When I made my first studio picture, ‘Animal House’, so that’s ’78…I could tell you the studios…I could look at each studio and tell you whose company it was. Like, you know, Universal was Lew Wasserman, Paramount was Charlie Bluhdorn, Warner Bros. was Steve Ross, United Artists was Arthur Krim…they were movie companies in the movie business.
Now every studio is a minor subdivision of a huge multi-national corporation. It’s a different bottom line. And the product is different to reflect it – it’s much more corporate. You know, things are done by committee now. And in retrospect, I was very lucky to come along in a really creative period for writers and directors, because it was the fallout…you know this all, it was the fallout from ‘Easy Rider’, right? You know all that, right?
JL: Ok. So there was a good 20, maybe even 30 year stretch, 25 year stretch, where the studios just said, ‘well, we don’t know what they want, maybe the filmmakers do.’ [Laughs] So the filmmakers were given a great deal of latitude. There was also a tremendous amount of courage that is not there now.
You know, you look at the films Universal made within three years of ‘Animal House’, I mean, it’s extraordinary. Because there are films as broad as ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and as smart as [unintelligible]. You know, even the teenage comedies were smarter…’Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, that’s a film that a studio wouldn’t make now.
BD: Well now it’s also about pre-established properties and title recognition and all that stuff, whereas before –
JL: Well, it has to do with marketing. Yes, you’re right. It’s the marketplace. It has to do with…you know, so many of my movies made more money their second weekends and third weekends than their first. Because you used to have what’s called ‘word-of-mouth’. You know, people would see the movie, they like it, they would tell their friends…now, if your picture doesn’t deliver the first three days, you’re outta there! It becomes this bizarre marketing thing. How do you sell a movie before people have seen it?
So it’s all about marketing, and that’s why there’s so many remakes, and franchises, and branding, because these are pre-sold titles. ‘Battleship’ is a pre-sold title. That might be a game, but nonetheless it’s a title that people have in their psyches. It’s much more difficult to try to sell something original now, or something out of the mainstream. It’s very difficult. Because the exhibitors, they put it in their theaters [and] after three days, if it doesn’t deliver, it’s [over].
Also, the whole idea of what’s called ‘delivery systems’ is in flux. I mean, I was quite surprised with ‘Burke & Hare’ to learn that IFC, before they opened it theatrically in New York and L.A. on the 9th of September, it’s now available on what’s called Video On Demand. Which they’ve been doing with a lot of movies. So financially that must make sense to them.
BD: Well, how do you feel about that?
JL: Well, I have mixed feelings about it, truthfully. Because as a filmmaker, movies are meant to be seen in big theaters with a lot of people. That’s how you want your movies to be seen, on a big screen, good sound and good projection. I remember being…you know, when the iPods and the phones started coming in…’Thriller’ was one of the first things offered for the downloading. I was amazed! They sold millions of ‘em. I was amazed to see people watching ‘Thriller’ the size of a postage stamp! You know, as a filmmaker you’re going ‘Jesus Christ!’ It’s like, ‘well maybe I shouldn’t have been so careful with the frame!’ [Laughs] But it’s all in flux.
Personally, I don’t think anything replaces the theatrical experience. A scary movie is scarier, a funny movie is funnier, a sad movie is sadder, if you’re in a crowd of people watching the film together. But you know, it’s always changing.
BD: Well, I think unfortunately a lot of people are sort of feeling let down by the theatrical experience now because of all these technologies, with people on their cell phones and having conversations in the middle of films and that kind of thing.
JL: Well yeah, and also you have a whole generation now that’s not used to it. They’re used to watching television on their computers or watching television on their iPads, you know? Or even movies. It’s a whole different…you know, it’s an evolution. But nonetheless, I don’t think anything replaces the theatrical experience, I really don’t. There are theaters more and more, like in L.A. it started with the Arclight, but there are more and more theaters that they charge you a premium, but you get a good experience. There aren’t loud people, and it’s not dirty, you know? [Laughs]
BD: So what made this the right vehicle for you to come back into the narrative feature directing world?
JL: Well, I’m not coming back anywhere! [Laughs] Well, I can tell you what…attracted me. This was serendipitous. I was visiting a friend named Gurinder Chadha, she’s a British filmmaker. The movie you would know of hers is ‘Bend it Like Beckham’. Well, Gurinder has an office at Ealing Studios, and she invited me to lunch, this is almost two years ago. And Ealing was literally the only studio in the U.K. I’d never been to or worked at. And I was very curious to see it because it’s not only one of the oldest studios in England, it has this storied history. You know about Ealing in the ’40s and ’50s?
BD: No, I don’t know much about it.
JL: There was a man named Sir Michael Balcon, and he ran this company in the ’40s and ’50s that had these extraordinary filmmakers – Alexander Mackendrick and [unintelligible] and all these really fine directors. And they made a series of remarkable movies. This is a horror website, right?
JL: You know a British film called ‘Dead of Night’?
BD: Oh yeah, the 1945 anthology film.
JL: Yeah, it’s still the best portmanteau film. That was an Ealing film. And in the ’50s, starting in the late ’40s and through the ’50s, they made a series of remarkable, very black, comedies. Like ‘The Ladykillers’, and ‘I’m All Right Jack’, and my favorite, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’. Have you ever seen ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’?
BD: I have not seen it, no.
JL: I’m doing you a favor. Just get the DVD and watch it. It’s such an elegant, funny, witty movie, romantic, about a serial killer. I mean, they made these films…in the original ‘Ladykillers’ – not the Coen Bros.’ bad remake, but the original one – the entire cast has murdered one another before the end of the movie! They just made these very black comedies.
So anyway, they went out of business, and Ealing, the studio, has been used as a rental lot for many years. The BBC used it…in fact, all the ‘Monty Python’ TV shows were shot there. So when Gurinder invited me, I really wanted to go to the lot.
So I went to the lot and had lunch, and while we were having lunch, she introduced me to Barnaby Thompson, who is the man who with some others bought Ealing 10 or 15 years ago. They bought it as a real estate development, but also they started making movies again. And Gurinder said, ‘Barnaby, this is John Landis.’ And he said, ‘are you the filmmaker?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ So he asked me if I’d read a script. And I read the script, and it was this, ‘Burke & Hare’. And it attracted me because it’s essentially such a perverse notion. Have you seen the film?
BD: I have, yeah.
JL: Yeah, well it’s not a horror film, it’s a romantic comedy. But the idea of making a romantic comedy with these terrible people, I mean, these historically terrible people. You know, it’s like, ‘hey, let’s make a romantic comedy about Charles Manson!’…But okay, that’s a challenge. And ironically, our film is by far the most accurate historically of all the films that have ever been made about Burke & Hare.
BD: Well, it’s being sort of touted as a very loose interpretation of the original story, so that’s interesting.
JL: It’s not so loose! I mean, aside from Isla Fisher’s character and all that, it’s pretty accurate. And it’s the only one that William Burke is actually in!
BD: Is that right?
JL: Have you seen it?
BD: Yeah, I have.
JL: Remember the ending? There’s William Burke!
BD: Oh right, the skeleton!
JL: That’s really William Burke! When he was sentenced to hang, his sentence was to be publicly dissected and put on display, and he is still on display!
BD: I forgot about that. That’s really interesting.
JL: Yeah, he’s very good! He’s very good in the movie.
BD: There were a few casting rumors earlier in the film’s development. You know, Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor were rumored at one point, and David Tennant was supposedly in it and then he had to drop out. Talk a little about the development and how hard it was to find the right people for this.
JL: Well, I got pretty much everyone I went for. I had, as you know, cast David Tennant, because…it’s a fine line. I mean, if you watch the film there are no apologies made. We show exactly what they’re doing. But we challenge you to like them. So the characters were very important. Simon Pegg had such a strong…he’s so sympathetic on screen. No matter what he’s playing…he has tremendous empathy that he shows on screen. So I was anxious to get Simon.
And then David Tennant’s agent double-booked him…he agreed to be in our movie, and then the agent booked him for a pilot in Los Angeles for NBC, which was a direct conflict. And we couldn’t be in that situation. So I regretfully said ‘David, I’m very sorry, I’m gonna replace you.’ And poor David, he did his pilot and it didn’t get picked up! But he’s a wonderful actor. I have no worries he’s gonna do fine.
So at the last minute, we were really looking around, and I met Andy Serkis, and I loved him, but Andy had really up until then only played – except for ‘King Kong’ – he’d only played villains…and I’m thinking, you know, it’s a very fine line. And he’s very brilliant, Andy, and I wasn’t entirely sure…and then I watched ‘Topsy Turvy’ again. You know, the Mike Leigh film?
JL: Well, Andy has a very small part in it that’s an extremely gay French choreographer. He’s pretty outrageous, and so different. I’m like, ‘you know, okay!’ And I’m delighted, I think he’s wonderful in the movie. For Andy, it’s a rare choice to see his own face!
BD: I was gonna say. He’s great in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’.
JL: Oh, wonderful! And right now, he’s in New Zealand doing Golem again for Peter [Jackson], and he’s directing second-unit on ‘The Hobbit’.
BD: Yeah, I heard about that. He’s a jack of all trades, this guy.
JL: He’s a very talented guy. He’s really wonderful.
BD: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I have to bring this up too. Jenny Agutter and John Woodvine are in the film. And horror fans know them from ‘American Werewolf in London’. So they’re gonna love that they’re in this movie. Is there a sense of nostalgia you were kinda going for there, or was it just happenstance?
JL: Well, I was in London to get a movie, and Jenny and John – well, first of all, they’re both wonderful – and they both said, ‘hey, give me a job!’ So I said ‘of course!’ Jenny just has a brief part. John actually has a role. He’s a wonderful actor. There are a lot of people from ‘Werewolf’ in it. David Scofield, who’s now quite a name, David’s first job was in ‘American Werewolf in London’.
BD: Do you ever think you’ll direct another horror film?
JL: You know what? Actually, I’m writing one with Alexandre Gavras and we’re shooting it within the next two years in Paris. Yeah, a little monster movie.
BD: What’s the title of it?
JL: It has no title yet.
BD: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s about?
JL: I can’t, no, I’m sorry.
BD: Well, I think our readers will be very happy to know that.
JL: Well, you’re the first people to know about it.
BD: Oh, great.
JL: It’s interesting…my cast has to be bilingual because it’s being shot in French and English.
BD: But you haven’t cast it yet, right?
JL: No, no. I mean, we know who’s gonna star in it, but this is all off the radar right now [so I can't tell you who they are].